What is the Globe Theatre? This reconstructed Elizabethan playhouse on the banks of the Thames has been described as a tourist attraction and a heritage site – and, by those more keen on it, as an upstart rival to the RSC. Its current director, the never knowingly understated Dominic Dromgoole, describes it as "the most successful theatre in the western hemisphere", because it does a roaring trade (5.5m tickets sold last year) on zero subsidy. But one thing no one has ever called the Globe is a home to new writing.
Many a theatregoer won't know that the Globe has been premièring new work alongside its Shakespeare revivals for several years – or that Dromgoole (a man with a distinguished new-writing pedigree) is ratcheting up the commitment to new plays, in a one-man bid to revitalise UK drama.
As far as Dromgoole is concerned, playwriting is in the grip of "the 'stop-it' school – a whole philosophy of modern dramaturgy which says 'stop it' to a lot of things that writers naturally like doing". Trust Dromgoole to dissent – as those who've read his hilariously abusive playwrights' compendium The Full Room will know, he has the stomach for a fight. Combine his bolshie personality with the unique dynamics of the Globe, and voilà! – you have a refuge where dramatists can write plays at which the Royal Court, the National and Dromgoole's old stamping ground, the Bush, might wrinkle their noses.
This season's examples (see below) include a revival (opening this week) of Che Walker's 2008 hit The Frontline, a picaresque of 21st-century Camden, alongside A New World, a new play by Trevor Griffiths about the 18th-century radical Thomas Paine, and an adaptation of Euripides' Helen by the pugnacious Irish classicist Frank McGuinness.
So, what makes these plays so different? According to Dromgoole, new plays at the Globe must acknowledge two key factors: the theatre's architecture – it's round, it's exposed and it's open to the sky – and its boisterous, diverse (20 per cent foreign tourists, says Dromgoole, and 50 per cent Londoners), and always visible audience. "At the Globe, it's not that the actors are lit and the audience are in the shadows," says Walker. "Everyone is lit together and you can see everyone's face." Says Dromgoole: "We, the practitioners, are not the owners of the theatre, we're the sharers of it. We don't stand in the light and dictate to people in the dark; we all do something collaboratively in the light together."
At the Globe, theatre's so-called "fourth wall" – separating actors from audience – collapses. "You have to turn the performance towards the crowd," says Dromgoole. "You come out and say, 'I am Hamlet and I'm real. Believe me.' And the audience say, 'Hmm. OK.'" Dromgoole makes it sound delightfully straightforward. But others demur – including the many critics who see the Globe's house style as pantomimic. "Collaboration with the audience and a sense of inclusion is threatening to some people," says Dromgoole. One such is Griffiths, who makes his Globe debut this season. "I'm very aware," he says, "of a push-pull between the stage and audience. To an extent, every live audience demands the right to shape the performance. But at the Globe they're very conscious of it – and there have been times when they have become the masters of the play."
Griffiths – who wrote the Oscar-winning movie Reds and hit plays including Comedians (1975) – is adapting A New World from his own film script. He's worried about writing domestic scenes for this open space; about writing intimacy when helicopters are buzzing overhead. "In my play, I don't want murmurs of love shouted," he says. "It's painful when somebody is whispering in his wife's ear and it's like a teacher on playground duty."
Dromgoole partly concedes that point, arguing that "the mechanisms of focus and control you get in the black-box theatre, you're not going to get here. But if you want a state of awareness higher than any other theatre," he adds, "you get that at the Globe."
Both parties agree that the Globe's major strength is as a forum for public theatre, for the type of epic, sweep-of-history event with which Griffiths' play teems. It demands of playwrights that they paint on a large canvas: Walker's The Frontline is set in London, but is explicitly "national" in its scope. "You need a sense of tectonic plates shifting under a given
moment," says Dromgoole. "A lot of writers – Shakespeare, Ibsen, Brecht – had their imaginations liberated for bigger spaces by going into history." Those writers, he adds, also shared moral heft, – a quality he feels the Globe demands. Hence, presumably, his recruitment of several neglected 1970s lefties – Griffiths, Howard Brenton (who wrote the 12th-century religious drama In Extremis for the 2007 season) and Jack Shepherd, whose play Holding Fire, about the Chartists, inspired an impromptu post-show rally by audience member Tony Benn. ("The crowd went bananas," says Dromgoole.) "The Globe is all about actors rather than set or effects," says the director. "So those who write from a moral viewpoint, where all human beings in their plays are important, are more at home than those who write about ideas or abstractions."
Moral purpose, of course, is just the type of thing the "stop-it school" would censure. Likewise, Dromgoole's claim that "you can do cheap jokes here. You can do theatrical stunts. You need pageantry, and rich language. Not self-conscious poetry, but language with its own snap, crackle, pop and flavour." The Globe also welcomes "clumsy exposition", says Dromgoole. "Whereas modern dramaturgy says 'Show not tell – we must be discreet', every Shakespeare scene begins with, 'Here we are in Alexandria,' or, 'Gosh, that was a stormy sea journey.'" This is a theatre, in other words, where writers can be unapologetic, unpretentious and entertaining. "Reaching an audience is nothing to be ashamed of," says Walker. "Quite the opposite – it's the core of it. You don't have to disappear up your own arse." That may be why, "When you look out on any night here, at the diversity in the audiences, at the young people crammed up with their elbows on the stage, you just think, 'This is what we've all been searching for.'"
Compare and contrast, says Dromgoole, to a theatre that elsewhere sits calcifying behind its Victorian proscenium arch, "where you have intellectual authority on stage and the audience have to sit and be respectful of it". Before arriving at the Globe in 2005, "I had never thought seriously about theatre architecture," he says. But creating plays for Shakespeare's stage has "dynamited" Dromgoole's assumptions. Now, he seeks to make work for "everyone in the light together".
"In an ideal world, I'd do a lot more new work," he says – he'd like to "slightly" tilt the balance between Shakespeare revivals and new plays. That's a risk, of course – the Globe's record with new work is hit-and-miss so far, and even the hits lose money. "Our new plays," says Dromgoole, "attract between 600 and 1,000 people a show." That may well be Britain's biggest audience for new work, but it's "a huge loss of money for the Globe, which can take £25,000 a performance. If we only take £12,000-£15,000, we're losing the money that could otherwise keep this place going."
We've reached the point in the conversation where the artist traditionally rattles the tin for more subsidy. But – true to form – Dromgoole dissents. "If somebody offered us lots of subsidy to do more new work, I'd say I don't want it. I don't want to be in the subsidised world for a while, where there's a governing aesthetic of taste and a sense of 'people like us'." Dromgoole prefers tilting at others' orthodoxies – and being beholden to no one. "All of those things writers are told not to do," he says, "here we can say, 'Do them, go wild.'"
'A New World' by Trevor Griffiths
A stage adaptation of Griffiths' unproduced film These Are the Times, which follows the English radical Thomas Paine (author of The Rights of Man) from Britain, via the American War of Independence, to revolutionary France.
'The Frontline' by Che Walker
A revival of the 2008 hit that puts Camden Town centre-stage. Walker's panoramic play evokes a London in flux, populated by junkies, refugees, soapbox Christians, lap dancers – and unemployed actors, too.
'Helen', adapted from Euripides, by Frank McGuinness
Fresh from adapting Oedipus for Ralph Fiennes and the National Theatre, the Irish dramatist gets to grips with Euripides' mysterious, comic, fairy-tale romance. It is the Globe's first production of a classic Greek drama. BL
'The Frontline' opens at Shakespeare's Globe, Bankside, London SE1 (020 7401 9919, www.shakespeares-globe.org), on TuesdayReuse content